Ontario passed its first Workmen’s Compensation for Injuries Act in 1886 ( re-enacted in 1892), partly as a response to the rising number of injuries to railway workers. The Act changed laws on employer liability but still meant claims by the injured worker had to be made through civil lawsuits and depended on being able to prove employer negligence. At the turn of the century as mechanization of production grew, so did the accident rate. Juries were increasingly holding employers responsible for workplace safety while workers organized for fair compensation.
Changing social and economic conditions, as in Germany, meant the labour movement was successful in having the government consider compensation reform. In 1910 a Commission of Enquiry was created, headed by Chief Justice of Ontario, Sir William Meredith. By the time he issued his “Final Report” in 1913, Meredith had gathered written evidence, travelled to several countries in Europe to see up close how workers’ compensation systems were working there, and, most importantly, held 27 sittings around the province where he heard from almost 100 witnesses.
Based on his draft legislation, the Ontario Legislature passed the 1914 Workmen’s Compensation Act, based on a “historic compromise” that saw workers give up their right to sue in return for a no-fault, employer-paid system that would provide speedy and secure payments for as long as the disability lasted. The foundational Meredith Principles were adopted in similar legislation across Canada.
The century since has seen a number of changes following the findings of government commissions in 1932, 1950, 1967 and 1973. The late 1960s saw the rise of an injured workers’ movement and activism that addressed issues of a hostile and discriminatory Board administration and its medical consultants, and the need for improvements in benefits and services for workers with permanent disabilities.
Weiler and permanent disability
Following the 1978 Wyatt report on WCB finances, the government appointed Professor Paul Weiler to review Ontario’s workers’ compensation system and in 1986 the Minna-Majesky Task Force to review its vocational rehabilitation services. Weiler’s three reports (1980-1983) looked at benefits and administration, occupational illness, and permanent partial disability compensation. While applauding reform proposals such as the independent appeals tribunal and inflation protection, injured workers, labour and legal clinics hold massive protests against those on deeming and the elimination of life pensions. While injured workers won some victories, the Board introduced experience rating and the Liberal government, despite earlier promises, brought in the the dual-award system and deeming with the passage of Bill 162 (1990).
Misled by fears of an unfunded liability, the NDP government which followed began cutting cost of living adjustments under the Friedland formula (Bill 165) though did increase pension supplements for unemployed injured workers. Its newly formed Royal Commission was cut short by a provincial election, bringing to power the Harris Progressive Conservative government.
Commonsense Revolution undermines workers’ compensation
Their reforms, proposed in Cam Jackson’s report, would completely reshape Ontario’s workers’ compensation under the myths of a financial crisis and injured worker “overcompensation”. Despite fierce opposition by the injured worker community, Bill 99 was passed in 1998. Subsequent Board policies and legislation under the Liberal government (2003- ) continue to use the unfunded liability (resulting from lowering employer premium rates in the 1990s) in support of claims management practices which reduce the number of long-term claims.
Behind those claims statistics however are workers with a permanent disability or impairment caused or aggravated by occupational injury or disease, asking why the compensation system is denying them rightful benefits and justice.
- Italian Fallen Workers Memorial [videos]
- Injured Workers’ History Project. 2006-2011. IWHP bulletins
- Ontario Workplace Tribunals Library. 2009. Workers’ Compensation Law: A Documentary History in Ontario. Toronto: OWTL
- Storey, Robert. 2008. “Their Only Power was Moral: The Injured Workers’ Movement in Toronto, 1970-1985.” Histoire sociale/Social History 41(81): 99-131
- Risk, R. C. B. 1983. “This Nuisance of litigation: The Origins of Workers’ Compensation in Ontario.” In Essays in the History of Canadian Law, vol. II, edited by David H. Flaherty, 418-491. Toronto: Publ. for the Osgoode Society by University of Toronto Press.